Abraham Lincoln's real lesson for Labour? Compromise is over-rated

The idea that Lincoln was the consummate modern political compromiser has to answer one awkward fact: he abolished slavery


The first reason why it's marvellous that the film Lincoln has
won acclaim
is it's mostly about a group of people discussing
ideas. That's not supposed to be popular. If anyone apart from
Spielberg had made it, they'd have come under pressure to change
it, so Lincoln barked "You've got 24 hours to pass this
anti-slavery bill, asshole", before jumping out of a window as
Congress exploded, then fighting Robert E Lee on the back of a

It's also hard to see how this film could earn money from merchandise, unless they're planning a computer game at which 15-year-old boys will spend all day shouting "Oh NO it's the corrupt Democrat, QUICK, devise a speech to convince him of the inalienable right to freedom of movement. YES, I'm on to Level 6." The virtue it illuminates most clearly, many commentators agree, is compromise.

Abraham Lincoln was only able to pass the bill because he was moderate and patient. Among those who have declared their admiration for this side of the man, and the film, is Alastair Campbell. Maybe that's because there's a Lincoln speech most people don't know, that goes: "I hold this truth to be self-evident, that if you write anything negative about me I'll twist your arse off and use it as a flowerpot on this solemn yet most sanctifying of days."

But the idea that Lincoln was the consummate modern political compromiser has to answer one awkward fact: he abolished slavery. He didn't announce an inquiry into slavery, at which some verbose Lord politely asked plantation owners if they'd ever whipped anyone so they could reply that they couldn't really recall very much and then leave. He didn't set up a focus group to see how abolishing slavery might play in key marginal seats, or propose a self-regulating body of slave owners or insist that clamping down on slavery would drive the owners abroad costing literally billions of jobs.

He didn't appear on Andrew Marr's show, muttering that as it's two years until the election he didn't want to be pressed into saying what his slavery policy might be; and didn't pledge to abolish it and then say that now he was Deputy-President he had to be realistic and treble the number of slaves instead, though he was a bit sorry about that.

In what way was passing the bill that made the abolition of slavery part of the constitution a compromise? Is it because he didn't sing "You're shit and you know you are" at his opponents? Rather than compromise, it must have been driven by tenacity, humanity and principles, or to put it another way, like no mainstream modern politician at all.

Part of what makes Lincoln so fascinating is that he did start out as a compromiser. He insisted the Civil War was only about maintaining the Union, and tried to keep northern racists happy by refusing to allow black people any positions in the army or government. But as slaves fled plantations, and demanded to be part of the army, he became convinced that slavery was central to the war. He set up black regiments, put black people in senior military positions, and became determined to abolish slavery altogether.

The southern states declared this was so outrageous that no peace would ever be possible. No doubt the radio phone-in presenters snarled "Have you read THIS? Now a council in Illinois says you can't even whip your own PROPERTY. What's going ON? It's political correctness gone MAAAAD." But the northern establishment also begged him to compromise. Go too far, they said, and you'll lose the middle ground. The newspapers were full of columns saying things like: "Freeing slaves is all very well, but they'll all come up here and Colorado's crowded enough as it is, and they'll keep us awake singing 'Amazing Grace' all night."

But as slavery became the issue driving the conflict, the Bureau of Coloured Troops enlisted almost 200,000 black soldiers, and as slaves ran off, the southern states started to collapse. In one sense Lincoln did retain the middle ground, but the common-sense view that politicians must always be moderate and compromise often ignores how the middle ground can move.

At the start of the Civil War, the idea of abolishing slavery seemed extreme, but by the end he was able to push it through, and now no politician is likely to say: "In order to win the middle ground at the next election, I announce we will reintroduce slavery." For the last battle of the Civil War, in a hugely poignant moment, Lincoln insisted the slave-trading port of Charleston was captured by a black regiment.

The common-sense view that politicians must always compromise often ignores how the middle ground can move.

So Labour leaders should watch Lincoln. Then at last Ed Miliband might make an impact with a speech that starts: "Mr Speaker, we are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and with humility we pronounce that according to that premise we shall declare unto those who place their billions into offshore accounts 'No you don't, pay your tax like everyone else before the eyes of God, you greedy pigs'."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas